Monday, June 25, 2012

The Netflix Files: June 18-24

 Louie Season 1 (2010) created by Louis C.K.

Seeing as Louie is often described as the "actual" best comedy on TV, I jumped at the chance to give it a go when it showed up online, seeing as the new season was right around the corner.  With shows like these - based on a comedian's life/stand up material - one has to be open to a very distinctive point of view, which often presents some type of adjustment curve. With Louie, however, the adjustment curve lasted a long time (essentially the whole season), and at the end I still wasn't sure I was a fan, let alone a believer that this was the best show on TV. Mining humor out of awkward situations is nothing new at this point, but C.K. seems to revel in a certain blend of ugly unpleasantness and direct social commentary that often feels forced and unfunny. Comedies with darker sides are, likewise, not novelties, but Louie goes too far with it at times, being too dour, unpleasant, and/or gross for its own good, often suffocating the humor in order to make some sort of point.

Grade: C+/C

Louie Season 2 (2011) created by Louis C.K.

If the first season of Louie was a major disappointment, then consider season two the show's redemption. While the problems of season one are still present, the humor comes through so much more, and the bitterness and melancholy often feel earned. The episode structure remains the same (and is surprisingly limited, consisting usually of two separate sequences that never go very far) but the results are so much stronger. The mid-season episode "Subway; Pamela," the series' shining moment so far, is the best example, providing moments of hilarity, absurdity, and just the right touch of sadness, courtesy of C.K.'s relationship with fellow single parent Pamela (Pamela Adlon). And, where season one ended and left me seriously debating whether I wanted to continue with the show, season two's wonderful conclusion has left me eager for the start of season three this Thursday.

Grade: B/B+

Raise the Red Lantern (1991) dir. Zhang Yimou

Before Zhang Yimou began making wildly colorful fantasies (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), he made his mark on global cinema with this lush, restrained look at family relationships in 1920s China. After her father's death, Songlian (the seemingly ageless Gong Li) is married to a wealthy man, becoming his fourth (simultaneous) wife, and competes for his attention and affection with the man's three other brides. The material certainly has some operatic overtones, but Zimou and the cast manage to execute the story, set entirely within the rooms and walls of the husband's stone compound, with a level of dignity (and even coldness) that prevents it from devolving into melodramatic nonsense. Performances all around are strong, and it's easy to see why Li's career quickly exploded after the film's debut. A slow, but sumptuous and ultimately affecting drama that has held up well. 

Grade: B+

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) dir. Joel Coen

One of the Coen brothers' lesser discussed efforts, this foray into noir proves to be surprisingly engaging and enjoyable. The plot hits many familiar beats (a man blackmails his wife and her lover until things spiral out of control), but the screenplay navigates the territory so as to make it feel fresh. Billy Bob Thorton, in the central role, is used to strong effect as Ed, a low-key, quiet figure who finds himself in escalating circumstances. The supporting cast is great as well, filled with nice turns from Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shaloub, and Katherine Borowitz, who delivers the film's best performance in a single riveting (and bizarre) conversation with Thorton. Despite the Coens' tendencies to wink at the audience, the film does play well as a straight noir despite one bit of out-there plotting (it's too good to spoil) and a smart jab at the verbosity of noir voice over narration. It may not get the recognition it deserves, but this strongly acted and immaculately designed film (thank you again, Roger Deakins/Dennis Gassner/Mary Zophres/etc...) is a true gem in the already jewel-encrusted crown that is Joel and Ethan Coen's career.

Grade: B+/A-

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